As part of a weekly preview to each Patriots game, the following is a preview of what you should expect in their matchup at Arizona on Sunday night. No doubt, this will be a daunting task with green quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm.
When the Patriots have the ball: Conventional wisdom says the Patriots will run the ball between the tackles and hope to win the battle of the trenches in order to overwhelm the Cardinals defense. Given the Patriots offensive line struggles last year and injuries this year, don't expect that to happen, especially against a Cardinals defense that ranked #6 in the NFL vs. the rush last season. LeGarrette Blount will get his touches in this game in jumbo packages that include James Develin and three tight ends in order to keep the defense honest and to relieve the pressure off of Garoppolo. Rather, expect more deception and outside runs in order to force the beefy Cardinals front seven to maintain gap discpline. Look for sweeps, stretches, draws and counters in order to catch the Cardinals being overaggressive in pursuit of the ball carrier. Let's see if Chandler Jones playing the Sam can tackle either James White or D.J. Foster in open space. In passing situations, expect Jimmy G to throw screen passes, wheel routes, and dump offs to his scat backs. Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, and Julian Edelman will do the work between the numbers on short passing routes. It will be interesting to see if both Gronk and Tyrann Mathieu are healthy because that is the matchup we all want to see. Don't expect a big game out of Chris Hogan if he lines up at the X with Patrick Peterson on him.
When the Cardinals have the ball: The Cardinals excel at both running and passing the ball and will likely try and establish the run in order to open up their deep passing game. With both Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower healthy, the Cardinals will likely fail in this effort. If they do get their running game going, it could be a Cardinal blowout. Instead, Arizona will likely go four or five wide early and often to force the Patriots to match up with reserve cornerbacks Cyrus Jones and Justin Coleman. If Carson Palmer chooses to challenge Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan in 1 x 1 situations he'd better be careful because both play the ball extremely well. Neither TE Darren Fells or Jermaine Gresham are huge receiving threats so the good news is that these players can be covered 1 x 1 by either Patrick Chung or Jamie Collins. On obvious passing downs, during the quarterback cadence, you won't even be able to see Devin McCourty on your TV screen he'll be playing so far behind the line of scrimmage to defend the Cardinals deep threats; Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown; over the top. The Patriots need to replicate the Giants game plan from Super Bowl XLII and both achieve a pass rush and contain the run with just 4 rushers because quarterback Carson Palmer punishes blitzing teams. However, expect Collins, Hightower, and perhaps Barkevious Mingo to sneak in a few A-gap blitzes to keep make Palmer uneasy.
Special teams: Is it hyperbole to say that the Patriots must come up with a game changing play in this phase in order to win the game? This will be our first chance to see D.J. Foster returning kicks (hopefully) and Cyrus Jones returning punts. Field position will be critical for the Patriots so that Garoppolo doesn't have to drive the ball 80 yards on each drive. A short field of 50 yards or less will be needed at least twice in this contest. Ryan Allen needs to be a notable player in this matchup, especially early, when the visiting underdogs play it close to the chest in order to win the field position battle. Stephen Gostkowski needs to be his usual Pro-Bowl self with his pinpoint field goal accuracy. He also needs to perform some tactical kickoffs by alternating between deep boots and high pooches at the goal line in order to force the Cardinals offense to drive a long field.
The Patriots will need Cyrus Jones to show his flash punt return moves in Glendale on Sunday night (source: nep.247sports.com)
3 keys for the Patriots:
Devin McCourty: The Cardinals love to stretch the field and throw the ball deep as much as any team in the NFL. McCourty needs to defend the deep threat and perhaps come up with an interception in order to quiet the crowd.
Cyrus Jones: The rookie not only will play in the nickel and dime and may be forced to blanket the speedy Brown in spread formations. Jones needs to be physical off the line to help prevent his man from getting a clean release. Also, as a punt returner Jones will need to show his Inner Prime Time and return at least one punt into field goal range for the offense.
Patriots running backs: A combined 20 touches for White and Foster (including the kicking game) would really improve the visitors' chances of pulling off the upset. Blount needs to break tackles in order to get the tough 3-4 yard carries in order to tire the defense and move the chains, especially on 3rd down. If they can't get the running game going and Garoppolo faces a lot of 3rd and longs, it will be a long day.
Find more here and follow me on twitter @TheSeanMelia